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by James Arnold

Y2K: Skimpy Year for Films


UNBREAKABLE (A-2, PG-13) is a dazzling comic-book superhero fantasy. Bruce Willis is a football stadium security guard, a self-described “ordinary man,” who slowly realizes that he has extraordinary powers, including intuition, strength and apparent indestructibility. Even more importantly, he realizes he has the obligation to use these gifts to “protect and guard” weak people.

This sounds like the opening episode of something like Batman or Spiderman, but writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (who debuted impressively with The Sixth Sense) opts for a gloomy, noirish realism that is convincing and adult. Two people help the hero realize his mission: His young son (Spencer Treat Clark) and an eccentric art collector (Samuel L. Jackson in top form) who was born with a disease that makes his bones very breakable.

The movie suggests deeper themes beyond the triumph of good. Among them are the later-in-life discovery of one’s inner strength, and the basic rationality and balance of existence. It’s the eternal tale we love to hear about heroes who are destined to rise from the people and save us from evil. Somewhat slow and over-controlled, but solid multidimensional entertainment; O.K. for adults and mature youth.


MOVIES AS 2000 ENDS: Last year was skimpy, especially if you count as Oscar counts. If we focus on films actually available to most of us in Y2K, we’re able to include some late 1999 releases for a respectable Ten Best list.

The most obvious explanation for lack of choices is that commercial movies tend to be aimed at younger regular moviegoers to (1) guarantee solid box-office and (2) have a shot at the big money. These are unlikely to strike audiences past 35 (25?) as profound drama or comedy experiences.

So-called art films, which traditionally help critics fill out lists of the best, are in decline. Most distributors consider The Full Monty (1996) an art film because it cost little to make, yet it grossed over $200 million worldwide. A true art film, like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, played eight weeks in Manhattan’s Lincoln Plaza to sold-out houses. But the profit was modest. Few outside the biggest cities get a chance to see such films, except on tape.

The Best: These (in random order) were the best reviewed here in the last 12 months (and are all highly recommended for video rental).

The Straight Story: David Lynch’s funny-sad, based-on-reality tale focuses on an old man’s adventures driving a lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to make peace with his dying brother.

Topsy-Turvy: This elegant, culturally and morally insightful account of the genesis and staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado includes fascinating characterizations of the authors and the London stage of a century ago.

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen mixes his love of jazz and Fellini movies in this poignant story about an improbable 1930s romance between a gifted but shallow jazz guitarist (Sean Penn) and a sweet-natured mute (Samantha Morton) from Atlantic City.

Erin Brockovich: This based-on-fact entertainment focuses on an attractive nice-but-feisty underdog single mom (Julia Roberts) who helps a small law firm representing common folk kick the tar out of an arrogant corporate polluter and its bevy of haughty attorneys. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Space Cowboys: Clint Eastwood’s wry, John Glenn-inspired adventure about geriatric astronauts on a space-shuttle mission to rescue an ancient Russian satellite is a rare combination of fun and spectacle.

Gladiator: Ridley Scott’s impressive (yet violent) ancient-Rome movie is not specifically Christian, but it is idealistic enough to extol both democracy and the soul’s immortality. Russell Crowe becomes an icon with his tough portrayal of the death-transcending warrior-hero.

The Hurricane: Norman Jewison’s superbly executed bio of controversial boxer-activist Rubin Carter is powerful, inspiring stuff in the Dead Man Walking class, with a great performance by Denzel Washington.

Color of Paradise: Iranian director Majid Majidi’s gorgeous film about a blind boy, his desperate father and the magic that underlies the visible world of nature is in the mysterious, quasi-theological domain of the best of Ingmar Bergman.

Nurse Betty: This comedy-of-errors and cross-country road movie is about a generous but unloved Kansas waitress who deservedly yet ironically fulfills her dreams via her passion for a TV-hospital soap opera. Directed by up-and-coming Neil Labute, it has more wit, subplots and complications than most other films this year.

Billy Elliot: This gift to starved dance-musical lovers describes with both humor and sensitivity the exploding talent of a boy in a British mining town who loves to dance. Director Stephen Daldry also doesn’t forget or ignore the family, friends and striking workers great artists and athletes often leave behind on their way to wealth and fame.

Also Definitely Worth Seeing: End of the Affair, The Perfect Storm, Wonderland, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Pay It Forward.

God’s Footprints Award (to film with best metaphor about grace and the benevolence of the universe): The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Doting Grandpa Award (for best A-2 movie not in Ten Best): U-571.

Favorite Male Actors: Greg Kinnear, as the TV actor who perceives Betty’s delusions as excellent improvised acting (Nurse Betty); Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the strange and uncorrupt rock critic (Almost Famous).

Favorite Female Actors: Hayden Panettiere, as the young football-buff daughter of the white coach (Remember the Titans); Elaine May, as the endlessly gabbing friend of the safecrackers (Small Time Crooks); Julie Walters, as the patient, caring, no-nonsense dance teacher (Billy Elliot).

Memorable Moments: The humiliations routinely expected of family and visitors on visiting day at state prison (The Hurricane); the rock-band members confess their sins as their private plane roars through the turbulence of a severe thunderstorm (Almost Famous).

The It’s-a-far-far-better-thing Award (for self-sacrifice): to Tommy Lee Jones, who blasts himself to the moon (Space Cowboys), and the child hero (Pay It Forward), who risks his life defending a friend beset by school-yard bullies.

Lines to Remember: “Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” (The Talented Mr. Ripley)

“God is happiest when his children are at play.” (The Legend of Bagger Vance)

“Hate put me in prison, love will bust me out.” (The Hurricane)

“He will bring them death. And they will love him for it.” (Said of the protagonist and spectators, in Gladiator)

“Principles only mean something if you stand by them in inconvenience.” (The Contender)

“If we don’t come together, we will be they were.” (Coach, talking to his black and white players, in the mist of the battlefield at Gettysburg, in Remember the Titans)

Among Many Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 2000: producer Father Ellwood Kieser (Romero); critic Vincent Canby; animator Carl Banks (co-pioneer of Donald Duck); writers Edward Anhalt (Oscar for Becket), Curt Siodmak (genius of classic horror films like Donovan’s Brain and The Wolf Man); editor Sam Osteen (Cool Hand Luke); actors Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Loretta Young, Claire Trevor, Hedy Lamarr, Walter Matthau, Vittorio Gassman, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Lederer, George Montgomery, Jason Robards, Jr. Also, two veterans of Gunga Din (my favorite boyhood flick) died: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Sam Jaffe, who in the title role died marvelously as the brave water-bearer blowing the bugle to warn the bagpiper-led British troops of a deadly ambush.

TV IN 2000

TV IN 2000 was the classic mixed bag. Don’t talk about sitcoms, which have become a dreaded category. But religious programming was definitely up, with more dramas about Jesus and biblical characters than we are accustomed to. Unfortunately, few of them were of great artistic merit. But good stuff of all kinds was available to viewers who were selective and pored carefully over program guides.

It’s a tough medium for a critic, because the content of TV covers virtually all civilized (and some uncivilized) topics. When you find something to watch, the criterion is not so much excellence or beauty as lack of cynicism or raunchiness. But the variety is immense, and probably no human being has a handle on it all. There are good TV shows nobody sees or knows about, just as there are thousands of good books published each year that few people discover or read.

This year’s notorious hits were Survivor, a Darwinian trend that apparently is destined to continue, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, whose genial host Regis Philbin makes greed easy enough to take (but three or four nights a week?).

The fictional presidential drama The West Wing also reached hit status (high ratings and nine Emmys), perhaps as a bright, idealistic refuge from the misery of the nonfictional election and post-election coverage that news departments and pundits will have great difficulty living down.

The sad moments were major: the deaths of Charles Schulz, Steve Allen, Victor Borge and Loretta Young (who many forget was a major star of TV as well as movies). Borge may be identified more with concert appearances than TV, but the Tube is where many people discovered this lovable, wacky, talented musician who loved to kid pretentious music.

Steve Allen was an extremely funny guy, a man of many talents who was truly liberated by the loose structure of his pioneering version of The Tonight Show. Sure, much of it was silly, but it’s gotten much worse in the 44 years since he passed the mike to Jack Paar (a totally different but equally witty, spontaneous, unforgettable host). In recent years, Steve Allen became identified with clean-up-TV movements that were uncharacteristically grouchy but hit a responsive note for many moralists. In any case, they don’t make entertainers like this guy anymore.

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